White America, we need some serious history education, and we need it desperately.

Ranging from well-intentioned white people to absolutely atrocious human beings who play at running a government, we’ve all got one major thing in common: A serious lack of historical knowledge and context. In particular, we really lack a clear knowledge of what our country truly was founded on.

To get us started, here recent examples from some of the current 2020 Democratic hopefuls who’ve been using this rhetoric throughout debates and in response to tragic events (that would probably not happen if what they say is true):

Steve Bullock: “Our nation is founded on the basic idea that every American’s voice matters.”

Beto O’Rourke: “We very consciously started out 243 years ago on the premise that we’re all created equal. We never quite lived up to it, but until now, until this administration, we never stopped trying.”

Joe Biden: “America was founded on the ideals of equality, equity, [and] fairness—but has failed to live up to that promise for all people.”

Jay Inslee: “As president, I will accept historic numbers of refugees—because we need to live up to the promises of diversity, equality and inclusion that our nation was founded on.”

The problem is that this rhetoric, this “we used to be better than this” ideology—regardless of whether or not they intend for their meaning to not be this, is… completely and utterly inaccurate for American history.

So, let’s take a look at what was happening before and during  the founding of the United States of America. Today, I’m going to look at three different historical moments involving Indigenous peoples across the country. (And just so I don’t have to say it, this is not an exhaustive list. There are so many more examples.)

Sort of Where We Are Today

Cahokia’s Woodhenge at Sunrise. (Credit: Dann Seurer, posted on Cahokia Mounds Museum Society)

The unfortunate bit about how American history is taught in schools, and I say this because I’m trained as a teacher and I’ve had a lot of interaction with both the American history curriculum (in California and Illinois) and American textbooks is that it doesn’t really talk about Native Americans. When it does, everything is super vague and makes it sound like all Indigenous peoples in North America are extinct; this really feeds into a lot of how we perceive and talk about them (including Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean), and it builds a ridiculous paternalistic attitude about how white people police Indigenous identities because many of us see Indigenous people as “not real.” When they’re standing in our faces and screaming “WE’RE RIGHT HERE” at us, we just sort of cover our eyes and move on (or we tell them to get over it, whatever it we might want them to be getting over at that moment).

Even anecdotally, I grew up all of seventeen miles (roughly 27 kilometers) from Cahokia. The overwhelming majority of people outside of the region have no idea what Cahokia even is, let alone that it was the location of the largest Indigenous city of the Mississippian culture. Frustratingly, it was barely mentioned throughout my primary, secondary, and tertiary education (and my major was anthropology).

Our whole attitude towards Native Americans is, honestly, complete trash. We’re so oblivious, even to the evidence staring us right in the face.

In fact, you can still check out some current primary school classes where they’re still teaching the Thanksgiving myth, which was debunked quite a long time ago because this “legend” is so ingrained in our culture. In fact, that “first Thanksgiving meal” is something that we just don’t have much documentation for. And even if that particular meal was peaceful, the peace would be incredibly short-lived as a result of increasing numbers of English settlers forcing the Native peoples from their lands (and also bringing diseases that would kill many of the Native Americans in the northeast).

Just for the record, that is already more information than what my primary education taught me about the “First Thanksgiving” and the relationship between the “Pilgrims” and the Native Americans (thankfully, some teachers and schools are currently making efforts to change the way they teach this event).

But this event, before we get to any others, is a clear indication that we were never going to found our nation on principles of justice and equality for all. How could we when we’d start our colonial history by displacing Indigienous peoples?

The history surrounding the colonists and then the American government has never been about equality for all; that was never their goal in the first place. You can see that in a number of legislative acts and atrocities aimed squarely at Indigenous peoples in North America.

So let’s look at a few.

The Pequot War (1636-38)

Figure of the Pequot fort or palizado in New England and the manner of destroying it by Captains Underhill and Mason. (Credit: Connecticut History)

Seeing as we almost never hear about different nations and tribes (because we don’t really even make an effort to differentiate between different Indigenous groups, especially in the lower 48 states), it’s probably not going to be surprising that so few non-Indigenous people even know who the Pequot are. So let’s start there.

The Pequot are a tribe that were originally from the New England area, specifically from the lands ranging between Connecticut and Rhode Island. In 1633, it is believed that there was an initial population of more than 16,000 Mohegan-Pequot people, with about half of them being known as Pequot. This population then decreased to roughly 4,000 people as the result of a smallpox epidemic in 1633. Today, many members of this tribe are part of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe.

It’s interesting to note that during their initial contact with English settlers, the Pequot (unlike the Mohawk and Abenaki) were considered to be “quite friendly” and “generally affable.” (I’m pretty sure that this general belief was related to the willingness to tolerate or work with and how useful they were to the varying colonists, honestly.)

This story has quite a lot of background that goes into it. The easiest way to explain it is that the Dutch and the English didn’t recognise each other’s claim in this land (and, honestly, they didn’t acknowledge the claim of the Indigenous people, either). In 1632, Edward Winslow had decided to lead an expedition into the Connecticut River Valley in response to the appeal of Wahginnacut, a ‘River Indian’ sachem. (My research could be flawed, but I didn’t really find much about this ‘appeal’. Just a heads up.)

But in response to the growing interests of the English settlers in the area, the Dutch decided that they needed to find ways to fortify their power in the region. An officer of the Dutch West India Company, Hans Ercluys (also spelled Enchluys), was sent out in 1632 to purchase land at the mouth of the river. In the following year, Jacob van Curler would also be sent to purchase another twenty acres from the Pequot sachem, Nepuquash.

In this same purchase, van Curler “also negotiated a commercial agreement with the Pequot concerning freedom of trade.” The Pequot had agreed to allow all other Indigenous peoples, regardless of their tribal affiliation, to access the proposed Dutch trading post and fort, the House of Good Hope. This also included to allow the Sequin, who were “their former adversary in the struggle for control of the valley.” Van Curler also let the Narragansett know about the treaty they had made with the Pequot, known as the Dutch-Pequot Agreement of 1633.

Fast forward a little through the building of the fort and trading post.

Some of this gets a bit hazy because there are so many inferences for why without having much evidence for any of it. What is known is that the Pequot killed another group of Indigenous traders shortly after the House of Good Hope had been completed. There are assumptions that these people were Narragansett people, who were seen as their enemy at the time.

In retaliation, the Dutch took the Pequot sachem, Tatobem, as a hostage when he decided to pay it a visit and was “apparently unaware of any danger he was in.” The Dutch demanded that the Pequot people pay a ransom, which they quickly paid in order to get back a powerful and respected leader. Instead of releasing Tatobem, they decided to murder him and keep the ransom. The Pequot would only receive Tatobem’s corpse.

Think of this any time that stereotype about friendly Dutch people pops up.

Anyway, the Pequot supposedly didn’t really see much of a difference between the Dutch and English settlers; they were all just Europeans! (Actually, I don’t feel like this is completely true. I do think they recognised there were differences, but the Pequot didn’t really see it since you can’t really see the differences between an unknown white Dutch person and an unknown white English person.) So, when they started tracking a ship that entered the Connecticut River, the captain of this ship would find a place in history as an “unexpected consequence of a trading rights squabble.”

Captain John Stone is, in some respects, an interesting character. The documents we have about him don’t show him in a positive light. In Pequot Plantation: The Story of an Early Colonial Settlement Richard A. Radune describes him as being:

… a crude, unsavory person who managed to create trouble in just about every settlement he visited north of Virginia on his coastal trade business. The talley of misconduct included drunkenness, suspected adultery, attempted theft of a ship in New Amsterdam and pulling a knife on the governor of Plymouth.

It’s also worth noting that he didn’t have a very good reputation as a result of different events:

Plymouth Colony was angered when Stone tried to steal one of their ships visiting the Dutch port of New Amsterdam after he had been drinking with the Dutch governor. The Dutch chased after the ship and managed to retrieve it for Plymouth Colony and tried to make amends for the incident. Plymouth Colony wanted Stone tried for piracy but eventually dropped the matter. Later, in Massachusetts Bay Colony, Captain Stone got in trouble again on September 12 and again, drinking and rowdy behavior was a factor. He was found in bed that night with another man’s wife. A charge of adultery could not be made but he was fined and banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony under punishment of death should he return.

Captain Stone and his crew of eight men were murdered shortly after Tatobem as an act of limited retribution, meaning they believed that this whole event was considered finished. (Also, the Pequot later told the English colonists that Stone had two captive Indigenous people who had their hands bound. It’s thought that there were two parties with different motives involved: an Indian rescue party who killed Stone’s crew after disembarking their ship and a party who killed Stone in his ship’s cabin.)

The Dutch, in response to this, opened fire upon the Pequot as one of their trading parties attempted to approach the House of Good Hope.

Finding that they were at war with the Dutch, the Pequot sent an envoy to the English settlers in Massachusetts Bay Colony in late 1634. They had openly admitted responsibility for the murder of Captain Stone and his crew in order to avenge that of their sachem, stating that they believed he was Dutch. The delegation offered the English “a gift of seventy beaver and otter skins along with four hundred fathoms of wampum;” Sassacus, the new sachem after Tatobem, guaranteed that the English would have all of their land and could “settle a plantation there.”

The English, in order to accept this offer, requested the men who were responsible for killing Captain Stone and his crew, and they said they would ally with the Pequot simply to trade and that they would not defend them should they require it. The Pequot delegation reminded the English that they were not able to accept the terms but that they would take it back to their sachem. It was never agreed upon, probably because the Pequot sachem probably saw this “treaty” as being a bad deal: they would only get goodwill rather than protection.

Around this time is when the settlers would change their minds about the Pequot being peaceful, describing them as “violent” or “ aggressive.”

So, that’s all background for this next bit.

Essentially, the initiation of the Pequot War seems to be that a Narragansett-allied group, the Manisses,  who supposedly wanted to discourage trade with the Pequot. This group killed Captain John Oldham, which sparked the Puritans’ desire to have an excuse for war against the local Native peoples, particularly the Pequot. (For the record, Oldham’s death is much more interesting than Stone’s. This is largely because he had significant interactions with with the Native peoples and was apparently “well-liked” by the Indigenous groups he hired to help him navigate watery trade routes. Meanwhile, Stone didn’t really have any ties to anything in the area. Y’know, seeing as how a whole colony said they’d kill him if he came back?)

The war lasted for a year, but it had “a devastating impact on the Tribe.” Many of the Pequot would be murdered during this time and some would flee to other nearby tribes for refuge. Later, under the Treaty of Hartford, the remaining survivors would be ‘divied up’ between the different Narragansett tribes. This treaty also would ban the name “Pequot” and outlaw the use of their language. The Pequot would not be allowed to have any of their own towns.

The Pequot, in multiple “historical” accounts starting with that of William Hubbard, would also have blatant lies written about them. Such lies include that they were not indigenous to their land, that they “invaded coastal Connecticut from ‘the interior of the continent’ and, driving away the peace-loving original inhabitants, ‘by Force seized upon one of the goodliest places near the sea, and became a Terrour to all their Neighbours.’” It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that this lie, for white historians and social scientists, was finally dispelled.

1755: Phips Bounty Proclamation

The 1755 Proclamation by Spencer Phips. (Credit: Upstander Project)

As the lieutenant governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, Spencer Phips issued a proclamation that declared that the Penobscot people were enemies, rebels, and traitors to King George II. The proclamation called for “his Majesty’s Subjects of this Province to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians” (emphasis added).

The bounty that was paid to settlers differed for either a male or female Penobscot person. Settlers who captured and brought a male Penobscot person over the age of twelve to Boston were awarded fifty pounds, while those who had captured a female Penobscot person would receive twenty-five. The scalps of any Penobscot person, which should be brought to Boston as evidence of their murder, were worth twenty pounds.

For the record, these scalps? They’re known as r*dskins. For anyone with an inkling of knowledge of American sports teams (ranging from high school to professional), it should be clear that this connects well with the slurs that are often used in their names (like a certain American football team in Washington, DC).

It’s also worth noting that Spencer Phips also definitely did this in 1745 with his “Proclamation for Encouragement to Voluntiers to prosecute the WAR against the Indian Enemy.” It doesn’t seem like he really wanted for any Indigenous person he encountered to have either equality or justice.

Also, I’m pretty sure this counts as genocide.

There were actually more of these sorts of proclamations or acts throughout the American colonies. In April 1756, Deputy Governor Robert Morris enacted laws known as “The Scalp Act” in response to fears of “raids by the Delaware tribe on the colonist’s settlements.” Many, including Benjamin Franklin, believe these raids were directly a result of…

Treaties and Deeds! Specifically the Walking Purchase of 1737

The distorted map drawn in 1736 by Andrew Hamilton. (Credit: The Pennsylvania Center for the Book)

So many events fuel a lot of discontent that occurred between multiple groups, essentially there is a habit of many actors in North America playing one against another. The Iroquois Confederacy, for example, was able to successfully “play-off” the British against the French to their own advantage for quite a while, but groups that were subordinated to one of the Six Nations often found that they were victims of this system.

So let’s look at one example of this.

William Penn, a Quaker, had been granted land in Pennsylvania by King Charles II in 1681. However, he decided to take “the further step of purchasing each portion within the grant from the Native American residents before selling subdivisions within it to his colonists.” His first purchase was made in 1682, and he continued this practice for many years. Sometimes he’d even pay for parts of land that overlapped previous purchases. This gained him the trust of the Lenape people (or the Delawares), particularly those who lived in the nearby areas.

At the time of his death in 1718, his sons (John, Richard, and Thomas) inherited the colony, lived far beyond their means, and were in debt. To increase their income and pay for debts and extravagances, they decided to sell land to the European settlers without purchasing it from the Native peoples living in the area. They weren’t alone in this, either, as Provincial Secretary James Logan had also engaged in the same practice of selling lands beyond what had been purchased from the Native peoples.

So nice of them right?

In 1734, Logan “brought forth a highly dubious copy of a deed, dated 1686, which alleged that the Delawares had then sold to William Penn” more land than they actually recalled selling him, as they recalled a deed with Penn but not giving him such a large portion of land.

This resulted in the Walking Purchase of 1737. In this agreement, the new land grant would contain a piece of land that started at Wrightstown and would extend as far north as a man could walk in a day. The Lenape were provided a distorted map of the route, which intentionally excluded or obscured boundaries.

James Yeates, Solomon Jennings, and Edward Marshall were all paid five pounds and promised 500 acres as the men chosen to walk (though only Marshall would receive the latter). These men, according to different accounts, did not walk. They ran and covered more than 60 miles in a day and a half; this essentially stripped them of all of their land. Many of the Lenape protested their removal and refused to confirm the deed, but Logan secured the backing of the Iroquois Confederacy, having granted them the right to be the sole arbiters of the Native lands in Pennsylvania.

The Lenape were forced out into areas of the Ohio River Valley, and the relationship between European colonists and native peoples were further strained. (Oh, and Yeates became blind and died three days after the Walk.)

And that location is going to come up quite a bit because of a group of wars known as the French and Indian War and the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763).

This is, by no means, the only treaty or deed where the colonists would renege on the terms they agreed upon. For example, the Treaty of Hopewell (1785) laid out boundaries that were agreed upon by Benjamin Hawkins and the Cherokee Nation, though the Cherokee would later complain of how settlers were encroaching and squatting on land where they did not belong; this would only be “rectified” by the Treaty of Holston (1791) that changed the borders between the two nations’ land (and also included a provision for the newly formed United States government to manage the foreign affairs of the Cherokee).

There are so many more events and people we’ve completely whitewashed or neglected. Disney helped us do this with their version of Matoaka’s story (also known as Pocahontas), glorifying and romanticising the kidnapping and rape of a girl. We’re still trying to get our governments (local, state, and federal) to even own up for the genocidal acts that were committed against many Indigenous peoples. So many people still refuse to even acknowledge the trauma of stolen Indigenous children through child removal policies, which still continue to this day under the foster care system. And what about the cultural appropriation of different nations and tribes (by the way, Adrienne Keene has an awesome blog focused on this very subject)? And the MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) who often are completely ignored? Seriously, there are so many things happening now.

In their efforts to build an empire (be it English, French, Spanish, or some other European colonial power), our ancestors ensured that Indigenous populations would not have the same rights as the white European colonists encroaching on their lands, which would seep into so many actions and events post-Revolution. This was even guaranteed up until 1924, when some Native Americans were finally granted citizenship in the Indian Citizenship (or Snyder) Act (though that, too, would come with some caveats, as white-led states would throw obstacles in their way to having basic rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965).

These are moments in our history that we need to remember, white people, because we love to talk about the “principles and morals” that we were founded on. These are the principles and morals we were founded upon; these are the actions of those who colonised the land we live on. We need to remember this because we cannot keep doing this.

Note: This is the first part in a series of undetermined length. Should there be any errors, including insensitive language, please feel free to contact me (email or Twitter) so I can update my post. If there are questions or requests for clarification, those are also helpful, too!

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